Over the past year, “stalkerware” has become a significant threat to people seeking abortions, according to an article published by Slate in July 2022. According to author Danielle Keats Citron, anyone who has a cyberstalking app can access anything on another person’s phone so long as they have the companion app installed, including that user’s location, camera roll, calls, texts, voicemail, internet history, and social media data. Stalkerware apps can also use the microphone to listen to conversations without the phone’s owner knowing, meaning women now have to worry about outsiders listening in on private conversations with healthcare providers, which could be used against them in court.
Citron also reports that these apps are extremely easy to access. You can Google “cellphone spy” or very commonly “spy on spouse’s cell phone.” There are over 200 paid apps capable of spying on another person’s phone. There are over 70,000 calls each day to domestic violence hotlines, and 70 percent of the people in that dataset are worried about stalkerware. In 2014, 54 percent of domestic abusers were using stalkerware to track partners’ phones. In 2018, Kaspersky, a security firm, found 518,223 infected phones in 2019, which was a 373 percent increase over 2018. The United States has the most number of stalkerware users, and women, LGBTQ+, and minorities have the highest chance of being spied on through stalkerware apps: “Abusers will use intimate data obtained from stalkerware to terrorize, manipulate, control, and (…) incriminate victims.”
Since abortions are now criminal in many states, the power of abusers has increased substantially. There are not enough laws that strictly outline what can and can’t be used to incriminate someone in these situations. Policymakers refuse to recognize that women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and others have the right to privacy. Laws do not usually go after the root cause of cyberstalking nor have they been updated to twenty-first-century standards due to the popularity and ubiquity of everyone carrying cell phones and having them very close by 24/7. Citron ends by saying that we need stronger intimate privacy violation laws, and there needs to be more education on why cyberstalking is wrong and criminal. Since stalkerware is already illegal, it’s up to law enforcement to “step up,” Citron said. The FTC also has gone against certain stalkerware companies, but there is still work to be done.
There is further important context for Citron’s article. Since it was written, more states have banned abortion or have placed restrictions on abortions. There are twelve states that have banned abortion: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Arizona and Florida have 15-week bans, Georgia has a six-week ban, and Utah has an 18-week ban. Indiana, Wyoming, and Ohio have had bans blocked in court. Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska are likely going to ban or restrict abortion in the next coming months.
Since Slate’s publication of Citron’s article, there has been a case in New York in late January 2023 that has placed a $410,000 fine on Florida man Patrick Hinchy and the sixteen spyware and stalkerware companies that he runs. This story was covered by Bloomberg and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in February 2023. The Bloomberg article discusses how some of the apps were disguised as safe child browsing monitors and other “…apps [that had] names such as PhoneSpector and AutoForward Data Services.” According to EFF, “…[Hinchy] and his companies [were ordered to] modify their stalkerware to alert victims that their devices have been compromised.” Neither of these two articles mention the danger of using spyware and stalkerware against people in need of abortions.
Bill Budington, “Stalkerware Maker Fined $410k and Compelled to Notify Victims,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 8, 2023.
Danielle Keats Citron, “Abortion Bans Are Going to Make Stalkerware Even More Dangerous,” Slate, July 5, 2022.
Student Researcher: David Laskowski (Drew University)
Faculty Evaluator: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)